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black and white photo of french horn players in a line
Interlochen, Michigan. National music camp where 300 or more young musicians study symphonic music for eight weeks each summer. French horns during symphony practice.

Orchestrating Communities of Practice

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This is a question-and-answer post with Alyson Williams who started at the Library of Congress six months ago in a brand-new position as head of Communities of Practice and Publications in a relatively new division, the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division (LACE), which brought together the former European and Hispanic divisions

Wait, Alyson what is a Community of Practice?
Yeah, that’s a fair question. I’ve been digging more deeply into that question myself this summer. Communities of Practice are something that I had heard about in graduate school and in my first job at the Felipe Herrera Library in the Knowledge and Learning Department at the Inter-American Development Bank, but only in passing. So, this spring, I started with some light Googling to get a basic overview of the concept and figure out who the key researchers were in the field, and from there, I searched the Library’s catalog for books and articles.  I learned that, according to Etienne Wenger (a founder of the field of study of communities of practice), humans are constantly engaged in these types of communities through the ways we socialize information, gather together based on shared interests, and construct shared ways of doing things. My favorite quote from Wenger explaining the concept is “A community of practice is a history collapsed into a present that invites engagement” (p. 1561).

Photo from the balcony looking down at the audience and the stage filled with musicians before the concert begins.
National Symphony Orchestra (Regina Spektor/Ben Folds November 11, 2018) photo by Alyson Williams

Tell us more: what about that quote speaks to you?

Happy to, with a brief musical interlude: In my spare time, I play horn in two different community orchestras, and orchestras are actually a great way to think about communities of practice and the quote I shared above! The orchestra is a group of people who come together because of a common interest in playing music. Each instrumentalist and the conductor bring their years of literal practice to the orchestra, so to speak, where all that experience commingles for each rehearsal and concert. The diversity of instruments, experiences, and approaches to the music enrich the experience for the whole group. There are members of the orchestra who have been there since the group began, and other musicians who come in only for one concert, but the orchestra cannot function without each part of this community of practice.

The preparation for each concert begins with selecting the music, practicing individually, listening to recordings of past performances to inform (or not) a different interpretation, and rehearsals. Occasionally, rehearsals are sectional – working with just part of the group, but full rehearsals, or practice in community, ultimately culminate in a performance. These performances are a conversation with the composer, past performers, the conductor, the orchestra, and the audience who bring their own experiences and expectations. It is magical!

Without every diverse individual and element leading up to the performance coming together, the musical piece itself would remain unplayed and unheard. Coming back to the quote above, an orchestra (community of practice) is a history (the music written by a composer and performed over the years by other orchestras; the individual experience and expertise of conductor as a guide; the practice and experience of the musicians individually and together) collapsed into a concert (a present) that invites engagement (between the conductor and the musicians, between the musicians within and across sections, and with the audience).

The orchestra provides a very concrete example of a community (the individual musicians and the conductor) who come together to practice (literally) to perform a concert with a selection of repertoire. Rinse and repeat! This same process of coming together (in teams or as collaborators) practicing (individualized skills or crafts in complementary ways to create something unique while engaging with each other) on a repertoire (or way of doing things) is often present in work, enriching the team as well the work itself.

Photo taken from above showing 4 women seated around two small tables that are covered in papers.
A team of workers engaged in review at the Social Security Board Records Office to guard against human error.

Tell us about Communities of Practice in the Latin American, Caribbean and European division

In my role as head of Communities of Practice and Publications, I oversee two long-standing projects that have robust community engagement: the Handbook of Latin American Studies and the PALABRA Archive.

The Handbook of Latin American Studies started in the late 1930s to bring researchers and scholars in different disciplines together around studies of Latin America in hopes of enabling inter-disciplinary learning. These scholars came together in the Hispanic Reading Room to share insights, observations, and challenges related to work in Latin America. They also selected, reviewed, and created an annual, curated annotated bibliography with materials from and about the region in many different disciplines. Each section opens with an introductory essay by the contributing editor. Though the in-person meetings are much less frequent, the work and engagement of the contributing editors remains very similar to what it was in decades past, though the annotations are now available and searchable through online tools.

The PALABRA Archive dates back to the early 1940s. It is a collection of original recordings of Luso-Hispanic authors and poets reading from their work. In some ways I see the curation of this collection as akin to capturing an orchestral performance. The work to record and present this community of voices brings literature to life. This work continues today and it has fully transitioned from recordings on tape to digital files. In addition to the authors and poets themselves, the Archive engages with a many different teams within and outside of the Library to promote and highlight literature and the spoken word from Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain, Portugal, and Portuguese-speaking Africa.

Both projects draw on decades’ long traditions and ways of doing that inform what the projects and teams are today. If we return to the idea that “[a] community of practice is a history collapsed into a present that invites engagement.” Changes in technology encourage and foster opportunities to reconvene these communities, inviting engagement between the members’ experiences and skills and new tools or platforms that permit these individuals to connect with one another and others somewhat like an electrical current flowing through a different form of conductor. These connections honor and highlight the past (the history) while folding it into the present to facilitate performance across a broader community in the future (the shared goal to inspire knowing, questioning, and learning anew).

To sum up, communities of practice bring the sum total of the individuals’ collective and cumulative wisdom, their diverse practices in the day-to day-work, and the opportunities (and challenges) of evolving technology and goals together for members to confront and engage with together in hopes of affirming and sharing community wisdom over time, space, and skills. This joint problem-solving, meeting what is next with an eye to past, is what makes me really excited to work in communities of practice!

Further Reading

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press.

Listen to recordings of writers from all over Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula, the Caribbean, and other regions with Hispanic and Portuguese heritage populations in the PALABRA Archive.

Continue your research with the Handbook of Latin American Studies

Learn more about how hundreds of scholars have contributed to the Handbook of Latin American Studies in this StoryMap.


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